Hillary Clinton aced the exam, except the annoying email portion.
But even during Friday’s meticulous grilling by NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell—during which the beleaguered Democratic frontrunner gave the same familiar, tortured and occasionally implausible explanations for her decision to use a private email server to conduct official government business—Clinton was calm and measured.
Indeed, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state was nearly coherent on that inconvenient subject, and betrayed none of the resentment and frustration that she hasn’t been able to conceal during her repeated confrontations with mobs of shouting reporters.
And when Clinton talked about the Syrian refugee disaster and the nuclear negotiations with Iran—giving her most explicit endorsement to date of President Obama’s imperfect deal with the mullahs—she delivered her insights with a depth of knowledge and nuance that seems sorely lacking in many of the current White House aspirants, notably the big-headed bluster of one candidate in particular who is bankrolling his own quest for the Republican nomination.
Correcting for the fact that every president down through history has found it advisable to fib on occasion, Clinton looked and sounded—dare I say it—presidential during the 30-minute encounter, which was taped Friday morning at 30 Rock.
Maybe because Clinton and Mitchell go way back, and have known each other at least since Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 race, when Mitchell elicited Hillary’s controversial comment about choosing a legal career over staying home, baking cookies and hosting teas, there was a certain comfort level that permeated Friday’s performance.
At one point, when Mitchell raised the subject of Clinton’s famous 1995 speech in the People’s Republic of China, inveighing against that country’s sorry record on women’s rights, the candidate mused to her interrogator, “You were there. It feels like it was yesterday.”
“We were just kids,” Mitchell smilingly agreed.
Sitting opposite each other in a studio done up to look like some garish real estate mogul’s ostentatious living room, nearly swallowed up by humongous white chairs, they were so close together that their shoes occasionally touched.
Apparently these two women of the same generation know each other pretty well—Mitchell covered Clinton at the State Department—and not just on a professional basis. After all, Mitchell’s husband is Alan Greenspan, who was chairman of the Federal Reserve during the Bill Clinton presidency and a frequently consulted economic policy adviser.
So the candidate seemed unfazed even when Mitchell was asking if she wished to “apologize to the American people” for the email screw-up. (Not really; unless “I am sorry this has been confusing to people” constitutes an apology).
She did, of course, repeatedly express regret, in a seemingly more heartfelt manner than her earlier pro-forma expressions of regret, for making such a lousy—and politically damaging—choice concerning her electronic communications.
One listens to her Jesuitical contortions about what was permitted or not permitted, what was marked classified and what was not, or which of her predecessors did nearly the same thing, with growing numbness and boredom—as good a strategy as any, perhaps Clinton believes, to get her past this controversy.
The one moment when Clinton really herniated my credulity was when Mitchell asked about the private server: “Did anyone in your inner circle say, ‘This isn’t such a good idea. Let’s not do this’”?
And the candidate responded: “You know, I was not thinking a lot when I got in. There was so much work to be done. We had so many problems around the world. I didn’t really stop and think what kind of email system will there be? I just didn’t.”
To state the obvious, if Secretary of State Clinton actually hadn’t given any thought to her emailing methods, then she would have done the easiest thing and used her government account. What’s more, it is simply hard to believe that this image-parsing, outwardly scrupulous public official—a self-described “policy wonk” who never saw a heap of details she didn’t dive into—“didn’t really stop and think what kind of email system will there be.”
That said, Clinton clearly appreciated that the barrage of email questions—including her scheduled October 22 appearance (“grueling,” as she expects it to be) before the Republican-run House committee investigating Benghazi and other missteps—constitutes a door she must walk through, however painfully, in order to arrive at the White House.
Clinton took every opportunity to pivot to her core issues such as income inequality and championing the middle class. Although we are supposedly in the midst of an election cycle in which pissed-off voters are resonating to candidates who channel populist rage but otherwise don’t seem to know a whole lot about much of anything, some might ultimately find Clinton’s calculated and policy-heavy rhetoric reassuring if not particularly exciting.
Her attempts to humanize herself—playing along with a “lightning round” in which she complained of sleep deprivation, admitted to a yen for chocolate, and revealed that she prefers, yes, emailing to texting—seemed a tad contrived, though the contrivance was Mitchell’s, not Clinton’s.
When Mitchell asked about Donald Trump, and his attacks on Clinton’s closest aide, Huma Abedin, the candidate replied: “Well, he’s attacked so many people…From great basketball players to people who express different opinions from him. I think it’s an unfortunate development in American politics—that his campaign is all about who he’s against, whether it’s immigrants or women broadcasters or aides of other candidates.”
She added: “I also believe the president of the United States does have to be careful about what he or she says. You know, I do know sometimes people say, well, I’m careful about what I say. That’s because for more than 20 years I’ve seen the importance of the president of the United States, the leader not only of our nation, but of the world, having to send messages that will be received by all kinds of people. Loose talk, threats, insults—they have consequences. So I’m going to conduct myself as I believe is appropriate for someone seeking the highest office in our country.”
That was one of Clinton’s better moments.